Northwest Montana’s Kootenai River

The Kootenai River is as big and as rugged as the landscape that surrounds it. Its powerful flow, deep green pools, and the lure of great trout fishing made it our choice for a 10 day fishing in early September of 2020.

Big Woods, Big Water

I can’t think of a way to describe this area better than my friend Tim Linehan, so I’ll quote him.

Northwest Montana isn’t typical big sky country. Instead it’s a place where the inland Pacific rainforest ecosystem crashes into the spine of the northern Rockies. And it smells like Christmas everyday.

Here the moisture creates understory in the big forests. As a grouse hunter, I’ve wanted to hunt these woods for a while and this September was my chance. I identified several spots so on the first cool day, I set out with Belle for the forest between Libby and Yaak, MT.

The first spot, the first day, less than 10 minutes into the hunt, Belle gets a yellow face painting from a skunk. Okay, back to fishing.

Wading and fishing the Kootenai River

Wading and Fishing the Kootenai River

Kootenai River Rainbow Trout

Kootenai River Rainbow Trout

Formed in the Canadian Rockies

Born in Kootenay Mountains in Canada, the Kootenai makes a short, 50-mile appearance in Montana before returning to British Columbia via Idaho. The river flows from the 422′ high concrete, Libby Dam. Above the dam, Lake Koocanusa is a ninety-mile-long reservoir that stretches past the US border 42 miles into Canada.

Below the dam, the river is a series of rapids and glides as it churns towards and then past the small town of Libby.

Kootenai Falls

Below the town of Libby, the river drops elevation over a series of rapids and falls. Kootenai Falls are a popular tourist spot. In the movie “The Revenant”, the main character, Hugh Glass, escapes aggressors by swimming over the falls. In reality, the stuntman suffered two broken legs in the filming. The river drops 30 feet over a series of falls. A swing bridge high over the river offers great views of the swirling green waters.

Columbia River Tributary

The Kootenai is the third largest tributary to the Columbia River. It joins the Columbia after a 485-mile journey in Castlegar, BC.

River and Highway Map

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Kootenai Fishing Access

Below Libby Dam, there are ample fishing accesses and boat launches. We brought along our Clackacraft drift boat which was perfect for the Kootenai. On this trip, we concentrated on learning the water from Blackwell Flats to Osprey Landing and floated this stretch several days.

There is a boat launch in Libby and a take-out just downstream before the falls at Bighorn Terrace. There are more accesses/launches after the gorge in the town of Troy, MT.

The Kootenai is a big river but we noted several places to wade the river. Along Highway 37 on the way to the dam, there are several places to pull over and wade fish. In Libby, below the Big Horn Terrace, access for the wading angler is quite good.

My Big Fish Story

We found an interesting spot just under the Highway 37 bridge near Blackwell Flats to wade. We followed an old railbed to the Fisher River. From there, we walked along the Fisher to the Kootenai. Just below the confluence, there is a gravel bar that extends out. Wading on the gravel bar was easy.

Here I hooked fish that was about as long as my leg – no joke. After catching nothing but smaller trout all week, I was surprised to hook into such a big fish. For at least the first 10 minutes, I am sure the fish did not even know he was hooked. The fish was clearly in control and I was left to hold on and tremble.

In a dry bag on my back was 30 lbs of camera equipment. It might well have been 100 miles away. I could hold onto the rod and the fish and get to the cameras. I hollered to my friend downstream who waved back in support. I yelled out to Tim upstream who waved me off and said he couldn’t hear me. So I just held on, trembling and hoping.

Another ten minutes pass. I’m growing weary and I’m guessing the fish has figured out something isn’t right. Still, he has not made any big run and I find that odd. So I test my luck. I lean in and pull him closer. My fly rod is nearly doubled over. The fish agrees and for the first time, I see its shadow. My trembling increases as I ease off the tension. The fish glides back into the current. I collect myself and summon strength. I bring the big fish closer still. I am amazed by its girth. I’m sure its a trout and I know it will be the largest I’ve ever caught.

I have no net. I call out again to my chums, no one cares. I appreciate the confidence they have in my angling prowess, but seriously, what will I do with this fish in the calm waters of the gravel bar?!?

It’s now or never. I bring the big fish in again. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to see as it leaves the fast water and glides into the calm water.

And then it’s gone. No fight, no run, no splash. How can that be? As I pulled in the #14 Red Copper John for inspection, I marvel at how straight the hook is. While I thought I was playing that big fish, I think he was just playing me.

Drifting the Kootenai River near Kootenai Angler

Drifting the Kootenai River near Kootenai Angler Fly Shop

Catching trout on the Kootenai River

Catching trout on the Kootenai River

Hatches on the Kootenai River

Like many rivers, you’ll find baetis, caddis, PMD’s, hoppers, and ants. Linehan Outfitters offers a hatch chart for trip planning.

We fished with caddis and hoppers and often dropped a nymph off the dry. While it was very enjoyable to fish dry flies, the trout caught, were a bit on the small side.

The Fisher River at the Kootenai

The Fisher River Joins the Kootenai

 Kootenai River Fishing Video

Local Experts

There are some great local guides on the Kootenai. Dave Blackburn has years of experience and is an excellent guide with a great location, cabins, restaurant, and fly shop. Kootenai River Outfitters offers many services such as a fly shop, shuttles, and boats.

Tim and Joanne Linehan operate a world-class hunting and fishing outfit. Based in nearby Yaak, Montana, they offer guided fishing trips on the Kootenai, upland bird hunting, big game hunts, and spring fishing trips on the Bitterroot, Clark Fork, and Missouri River.

Linehan Outfitters have twice earned the coveted Orvis Outfitter of the Year while Tim has been recognized as Guide of the Year.

In total, it’s an amazing amount of fly fishing talent in a small corner of Montana.

Nearby Fly Fishing Waters

Options are always a great thing to have on a fly fishing trip. Here are some options while fishing the Kootenai River near Libby, Montana.

Current Stream Flow

USGS Water-data graph for the Kootenai River at Libby Dam

A Funny Story About Our First Trip to the Kootenai

Our first summer in Montana, we booked a trip to the Kootenai with Linehan Outfitting. Tim and Joanne were long time friends so we were really excited to see their part of the world.

Driving there, we began to experience car troubles. The speedometer stopped working. Next the air conditioned failed. Worse yet, the power windows refused to work. The outside temperature was near 90.

Cell service was non-existant on the last leg of the journey. Don’t panic.

We reached cell range and found a Chevy garage. Our next fear was realized when we arrived at the garage and the doors refused to open. Just breathe. On a whim, I tried the sunroof. It opened! I climbed through and using the spare key, opened the doors to release Tim and our pup, Dee.

Dee was overheated and panting so we set out for the river while Tim stayed back at the garage to attend to the car. We hadn’t walked long when the hot sidewalk and exhaustion was just too much for my old gal so I carried her a quarter mile to the water.

Dee enjoyed the cool waters of the Kootenai and felt revived. Libby has a wonderful park with a covered pavilion called Riverfront Park. On this day, a group of ladies were enjoying lunch. One ventured over to us and, after hearing my tale of car troubles, invited Dee and I to join them for ice cream.

I enjoyed the easy conversation with this group of friends as they celebrated a victory over cancer. They left me with bottles of water as I waited for Tim to call with news about the car.

No Diagnosis

When Tim called, the news was not good. They were having a hard time diagnosing the issue. Worse, there had been a series of deer strikes in the area so no rental cars were available. Undeterred, Tim called the local U-Haul dealer and secured us a 10′ box truck.

It would take three days to diagnose and repair the car. Turns out it was a faulty module of the rear lift gate. Argh.

Fish and Wildlife

Perhaps the funniest part of the adventure occured on the last day. We were about to wade and fish the Yaak River in a spot Tim Linehan had recommended. We had the empty back open on the U-Haul as we rigged the rods. Fish and Wildlife officers pulled up near us and watched for a long while before getting out of their truck to ask us what we were doing.

“We don’t normally see people fishing out of an empty U-Haul truck” one remarked.

Tim and Dee in Yaak Montana

The Necessities For a Kootenai Fishing Trip

Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to camp.

For This Adventure

We try to mix up dry camping with full hookups so, for this adventure, we booked 10 nights at the Woodlands RV Park in Libby. We had stayed here before and found the park to be comfortable and nice.

During our stay, Libby hosted the International Chainsaw Carving Competition – it was an awesome display of talent!

Northwest Montana Side Trips

On every fishing trip, we take some time and explore the local scene and area attractions. The Kootenai Falls features a swing bridge that crosses the river. You’ll recognize the falls if you saw the movie, The Revenant.

See More Photos From Our Trip to the Kootenai River

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Fishing Guidebooks

Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.

*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!

Flyfisher’s Guide to Montana
Flyfisher’s Guide to Southwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes
Montana Road & Recreation Atlas